At first glance China seems to be bewildering, impolite and culinarily disappointing. No one speaks English; the signs aren’t even in a familiar alphabet. People are impatient, pushy and sound like they’re locked in a constant battle with their phlegm. The food on the hotel buffet looked grey and gloopy.
But, this is all bollocks….
Chengdu is incredibly easy to navigate; the tube network is fantastic and makes you realise how much better London would be if TFL could threaten labour camps when negotiating with the RMT. It was though a worrying reminder of how much I rely on Google Maps to get around.
The people I’ve met are funny, cynical and delightfully greedy. There’s a pleasing obsession with food and being full. The impatience also suits me.
The food is wonderfully varied, delicious and fun.. On my first night here I did a food tour, on my second night the client took me to a great Yunnan restaurant and then ordered everything on the menu.
Some of the highlights,
The first stop on the food tour was a hole in the wall serving Sichuan pancakes. These are made with lightly fermented dough, bacon and a spicy jam. They’re greasy, doughy, spicy, sour and salty. It felt like we were doing the food tour in reverse; if they served these in London the queue at pub kicking out time would be enormous.
Peppers and Chili
Chengdu is in Sichuan province, so there’s a lot of pepper and spice. As with Indian food in India, you quickly realize that spiciness is far more complex and interesting than we think in the UK. It’s not just about uncomfortable mouth heat but balancing spices to create delicious tastes. (I’m sure the same is true of Mexican food but I’ve never managed to take a grown up trip there – I’ve always just gone to Cancun and got pissed with Helen.)
The most incredible Sichuan spice leaves your mouth tingly and numb, it’s a weirdly addictive sensation; a bit like holding really strong Listerine in your mouth too long. Other local spice effects are more familiar, leaving you with a lot of snot and an invigorating spicy buzz.
One of my favourite spicy dishes was at the Yunnan restaurant. It was spicy minced beef that you wrapped in a lettuce leaf with a mint leaf inside before squirting with fresh lime. Donald Trump’s worst nightmare; an alliance of Mexico and China.
Noodles and Dumplings
The noodles and dumpling dishes are so close to pasta that it makes you think of Marco Polo. The dumplings here are boiled, not fried, so they can (at first glance) look very similar to tortellini. There was also a Yunnan dish of flat noodles with cured pork leg that was linguine with chili oil and pancetta in all but name.
For dumplings our food tour took us to a small restaurant inside a flat within a 70s built Soviet block. It was almost a cliché of a hidden gem restaurant; grubby kitchen with an old crone shuffling between steaming pots, garden furniture, yellowing walls with pealing posters.
Luckily the dumplings were great. They came in three level of spiciness; but all three were much more than just spicy. You got the roast garlic, the pork, the ginger and then the spices.
Noodles are shaved off of a golden doughy lump, straight into the boiling water; we’re a long way from Bachelors. In Italy, or good Italian restaurants, you learn that pasta doesn’t need to be a mere base for other things. Good pasta can be delicious with just good oil, salt (and maybe some cremated garlic in my house). The same is true of noodles. One of the most surprising dishes we had was cold noodles in spicy oil. As you mixed the oil through the noodles the flavour didn’t just vary in intensity but actually changed based on the noodle-oil ratio
One of the dishes on the food tour that some wouldn’t eat was rabbit’s head that still had the teeth in it and looked distinctly like what it was.
As it had been slow cooked on the bone the cheek just fell apart. The done thing was to smear a bit of the brain on to the cheek before eating. As the brain had taken on the texture of bone marrow this was also rather lovely.
Locusts and grubs were less appetizing. They just don’t taste of much, and anything they do taste of is very ‘earthy’. Apparently they’re a great source of protein but I can see why they’ve not caught on around the world. They just don’t taste all that great.